Mistakes happen - they're part of everybody's learning curve. There are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes in the course of running a residential building; in nearly three decades in the building operations field, I've both made and been witness to quite a few of them myself. The trick, however, is to minimize the impact of our mistakes and make sure we don't make the same one more than once. Below you'll find a short list of some of the mistakes I've seen happen again and again in buildings all over the city, along with tips on how to avoid such problems in your own building community.
Some are concrete - like knowing when your building is due for a new boiler, for example - while others are more ephemeral and people-focused. All will help things run more smoothly in your building, whether you're a board member, managing agent, or super.
Failure to develop and use good communication skills is probably the single biggest mistake made by administrators, directors, and staff members in co-op and condo buildings. Times have changed since the days of information on a need-to-know basis, and communication between managers and supers is key to any building's functioning - along with communication between the super, the manager, the board, the residents, other building staff, and any contractors who may be working on the premises. When communication breaks down or is absent altogether, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, so to speak. This can be a disaster in the making. If you are not pleased with your superintendent or manager, then the dissatisfaction needs to be communicated to them in a civil way and not as a disciplinary action - more as a corrective action.
One good way for boards, managers, staff, and residents to communicate with each other is via e-mail. As a building super, e-mail has made my life easier by reducing the time I spend playing phone tag and automatically generating a record of what I communicated and when. It also allows me to communicate the same thing to more then one person at a time, and should I leave something out, I can always send an amendment. If your building staff aren't wired for e-mail, it makes sense to get them online - the time and effort it saves is well worth the investment.
Supers are responsible for everything in our building, from maintenance to staffing decisions to discipline when staff members don't perform up to scratch. A common mistake made by supers is blaming performance problems entirely on staff members. For example, if the doorman falls asleep or reads a newspaper on the job, it's not really the doorman's fault. It's the super's fault for not properly training him or supervising him.
Yet all too often, supers fail to see that they play a role in the performance of their staff, preferring to see the staff member in question as incompetent or lazy. And even if that is the case, guess what? It's still the super's fault for not correcting, motivating and improving his or her personnel.
Some supers just want to be the boss, with no real responsibility. I was invited to give a speech on motivating staff and self at a superintendents' club meeting in Manhattan recently. Halfway through my speech, one super stood up and said "I motivate my men by telling them it's either my way, or the highway!"
Management philosophies like that are worse than no philosophy at all. Building staff don't hire themselves, and they don't train and manage themselves either. A competent, capable super will treat his or her employees with respect, and see to it that they have all the skills and tools they need to do their job right.
To that end, it's simply vital that the super, manager and board members be on the same page - to leave the super and his staff out of the building's administrative loop is a big mistake, because nobody knows what is going on in the building better then a good super. Does your super attend board meetings for the first half hour or so? Does he or she get regular memos and check-ins from management and the board? Is the building staff kept current with new rules, procedures, and projects? If you answered yes for your building, you're on the right track.
While the super is probably the building staff member with the most day-to-day contact with shareholders and owners, managing agents get their share of contact as well - and with it the chance to make some big mistakes of their own.
One error made time and again in the city's residential buildings is the famous old habit of avoiding nuisance residents. Even if a shareholder or unit owner is the most irritating person, and makes the most outlandish requests or demands of the manager or board, it's better to meet the problem head-on and get past it rather then to hide from it. Ignoring the problem - and the person attached to it - only breeds bad feeling, and will almost always come back to haunt the ignorers eventually, either in the form of acrimony between neighbors, or something worse, like a lawsuit.
Hand in hand with the mistake of ignoring irksome residents is that of not returning phone calls to people expeditiously. Let's face it; building administrators are in the service industry - service being the key word. After all, if you paid for a service that was rendered to you unsatisfactorily, wouldn't you feel cheated? Wouldn't you make a complaint? Shareholders and unit owners pay for a service, and feel cheated when the service isn't delivered. Delivering good service can mean something as simple as returning a phone call promptly - maybe not with a definite answer, or with the answer the caller wants to hear, necessarily - because it means something to residents that you took the time to hear their issue and give it your attention.
Paying attention and applying good listening skills is a two-way street between board, management, and residents. Occasionally though, managing agents can gum up the flow of traffic between the sides by assuming they know what the board wants, or by thinking that they know enough about how buildings work to make major policy or maintenance decisions without outside input. A good managing agent can certainly guide the board and building staff, but in the end, they need to recognize the limits of their knowledge and expertise and let professional specialists come in and handle certain problems, whether they be legal issues or major capital repairs.
Board members aren't immune to making mistakes of their own, particularly when they let their personal feelings get involved in the decision-making process. Oftentimes, boards don't treat the building like a business; they tend to micromanage things and fail to communicate their ideas, plans, and decisions.
People who don't have time to spare shouldn't be on the board - and people with too much time to spare should also not be on the board. It takes time to be on a board, and too much time on one's hands tends to lead to micromanagement. Boards should have job descriptions for the superintendent, for the managing agent and also should make job descriptions for each position on the board. That clearly denotes who does what, who's responsible for answering to whom, and what the board's goals are for this term.
Lastly, many boards take their managing agent and supers way too much for granted. We all are human, and need reinforcement of a job well done now and then. We also need direction; not just annoying lists of things to be done. gal issues or major capital repairs.
Too often, managers, boards, and staff members simply assume the super is doing his job and knows what he is doing, or they assume the manager knows everything about the building. He may be a wealth of knowledge, but not everybody knows everything, and nobody should be expected to. This routes back to communication; if communication is open and unfettered, there's no room for assumption - and the errors that can come along with it.
Another mistake common to managers, supers, and other building support staff is not taking advantages of continuing education, and not being involved in an established industry organization.
Union schools offer what amounts to free education - yet most supers don't encourage their staff to take the courses. If the super doesn't belong to a union, he should approach the board and ask if they would pay for courses. It can't hurt to ask, and the new skills and ideas passed around in the classroom setting can help supers and other support staff members stay abreast of new technology, current trends in the business, and even help them develop better interpersonal skills they can apply on the job to make everything run more smoothly.
Continuing education helps us do a better job, and belonging to a group helps by networking and by sharing good and bad experiences - which in the long run leads to answers to common building problems. Regardless of the issue - whether it has to do with the staff, or management, or even the heating system or the roof, someone in the group has gone through it or knows someone who has. Shared experiences help develop ideas and answers.
When it comes right down to it, most of the mistakes made by the staff and administration of residential buildings can be assuaged or erased by slowing down, thinking ahead, and respecting fellow professionals all up and down the spectrum.